A Slice of Kenya: Building a Pizzeria in Nairobi, Part 3
Editor's Note: For 100 days, San Diego pizza maker Matt Lyons (aka Mattivore) will be living in Kenya, consulting and training staff for the opening of a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Nairobi. In this series, Matt will chronicle his journey from start to finish.
First, a note from Matthew. I apologize that I haven't been in touch in quite a long time. After Westgate, keeping a lower profile seemed wise, and that coincided with having little-to-no time to write during a crazy schedule leading up to getting the restaurant open. That occasion has now come and gone, intentionally without much fanfare or publicity, and we're now hitting our stride. I feel like things are back to normal, except everyone is still so vigilant, and the military and local police are stationed with machine guns everywhere, including right outside of our building. The situation seems calmed enough, or the automatic weapons comforting enough to share the next chapter in this adventure.
Generally I and Nairobi were in very good understanding, and at one time I drove through the town and thought: There is no world without Nairobi's streets. —Karen Blixen, Out of Africa
Nairobi is wild, especially its streets that nearly define my world these days. It's such an energetic place—a city of 3 million, and it feels like it has ten times that—everyone is out and about all at once, a sprawling Manhattan in East Africa. There are hawkers selling bananas and dresses and knock-off Ray Bans in the street, vendors selling late edition newspapers at busy intersections at midnight on a Sunday, and men with veritable RedBox selections of counterfeit DVDs, (only these guys make excellent recommendations and replace discs that don't work). There's amazing ethnic cuisine all over, from the Kenyan standard of ugali and sukumawiki that's as comforting as grilled cheese and tomato soup; to the one-portion-but-actually-three-portions of incredible tastes-like-burning Tikka Masala for $6; to the best falafel I've ever had from a dingy "Taste of Lebanon" place in a food court.
Even the Nairobi traffic deserves superlatives. Imagine encountering the worst traffic jam you've ever seen in Los Angeles or New York.
This is my new home, and the home of 360 Degrees Artisan Pizza. I've met about a thousand people here, and I couldn't ask for a better thousand, let alone the close circle of my immediate team that I work with everyday. There's Joy, the sharp and witty executive chef, and Gilbert, the hopelessly-romantic head pizzaiolo, who both trained under Enzo Coccia in Naples. There's sous chef Dan, wildly talented and hysterical, and destined for greatness, and Alyson, the other American consultant with Chez Panisse and Pizzaiolo on her resume, who is working on great homemade pastas, apps, salads, and desserts out of the back kitchen. And there's Robert, who was my driver and then my driving teacher. Even though I've graduated to driving myself around and venturing out on the frenetic public transit system, Robert is still my Kenyan ambassador and guide, perhaps the kindest and most patient person I've ever met.
After meeting the stellar team, I toured the space, and got to work. The first thing on the list? Eat as much of the local pizza as I could manage, in order to see what we were up against and get a feel for the Kenyan pizza culture. Within my first week here, I'd eaten pizza at about as many places in Nairobi as I had when I was on a slice marathon in New York earlier this year. I chatted up waiters, owners, and pizzaioli about their products. At each subsequent pizzeria, I became less and less discreet with my industrial espionage. I weighed pies, counted pepperonis, poured wine into measuring cups, took bake times and even oven temperature readings with my infrared thermometer. And I ate, at some places more than at others.
What I've come to learn is that there's a distinctive and pervasive style of pizza here, which I've coined, unimaginatively, "Kenyan Pizza."
"Kenyan Pizza" means extremely thin crust, rolled out with a pin or more often, a pasta sheeter. It's over-extended and cut to exact shape and size by taking a pizza wheeler around an inverted plate. It's always topped all the way to edge, and as a result of the rolling method, usually has a uniform thickness with no cornicione. There's a shocking percentage of wood-fired ovens—I spotted them in about 80% of the pizzerias I visited—but they're maintained at about 350º F; the pizzas hang out next to the bed of wood coals until crispy for 5-8 minutes.
Kenyan pizza is exactly that—a style native to this region, born from what's available close by. It's made with flour better suited to a chapati-like flatbread than a long-fermented, high-hydration dough. The tomatoes are better heavily herbed and spiced than standing on their own, and the cheese, made from the milk of grass-fed dairy cows, is, well, grassy. For most Kenyans, this is pizza, and that's that. This is the way it looks, this is the thickness and texture of the crust, these are tomatoes, this is cheese.
Given these pizzas, I see the opportunity here, the niche we hope to fill, and the rationale that inspired something different, from our Stefano Ferrara oven to the shipping containers of Caputo and Gustorosso tomatoes. It's an opportunity to introduce something different, a second style of pizza in a major global city. It's an opportunity to influence the pizza culture, not only by offering something different to our customers at a competitive rate, but also by creating demand for our vendors. We're signaling that we want fresher, milkier local cheese; that we want sun-grown and fully ripened tomatoes, and maybe eventually, flour that's grown, milled, and blended to a more exacting specification. And, of course, that we're more than willing to pay for a superior product.
But by importing some of those items at a ridiculous logistical and financial expense in the interim, we're also declaring to the entire network of local purveyors and producers that no matter how much we'd prefer to buy from them, we're uncompromising when it comes to our standards. It's exciting to see that change already happening.
When we started, the local greengrocer's basil was either absent from their shelves, or, almost as frustrating, gone to flower. Since we've insisted on quality and quantity on a daily basis, they've come to demand the same from their vendors. Our daily basil delivery is fresh and unwilted, with none of the bitterness or toughness that comes from being overgrown. We've found an Australian expat named Stephen (or did he find us?) who grows red, ripe and sweet tomatoes, and we're supporting him. We've found a lettuce grower who takes pride in their greens—they arrive in as good a condition as when they were pulled from the ground, and we're supporting that farmer, too.
I met Benson, my employer's brother-in-law, who has several farms in different microclimates in and around around Nairobi for different types of produce. He's growing several items from imported seeds. His squash blossoms are simply perfect, and his escarole is just the thing for a tribute to a calzone by Enzo Coccia—one with kalamata olives and anchovies, coming soon. He's got Calabrian peppers and San Marzano varietals in the ground, too. We sampled every mozzarella and fresh mozzarella made in Nairobi before selecting an imported one, but we've gotten ahold of some amazingly fresh raw milk, which, thanks to Alyson's skill as a cheesemaker, is destined to become homemade fior di latte. And we've made good friends with Flavio, a Roman who owns a well-stocked Italian market, who's sourcing a lot of hard-to-get items (most impressively, a consistent and fresh supply of mozzarella di bufala Campania).
For some more exotic produce, we visited City Park Hawkers Market, an outdoor farmer's market in a wide shanty hut with a potato-sack-and-tarp roof that is home to hundreds of vendors with amazingly vibrant fruits and veggies. It was a strange reminder that I was in the Tropics and that these items were exotic only to me, because there were more local bananas, passion fruits, guavas, melons, and pineapples than apples or oranges. With that inspiration, we developed a ham and Mombasa pineapple pizza, called The Obama (Kenyan origin, Hawaiian birth certificate), but it didn't make it very far into the menu development process.
We tasted wines, sometimes more than necessary, and conducted firewood experiments in the chemenia in our boss's backyard, also while tasting wine. We tried one wood that Benson recently planted 30 acres of, and then decided another wood burned hotter and longer, so he's now planting 30 acres of that firewood, too.
We went to every restaurant supply store in town, to find the right pots and pans and ladles and spatulas. From our sourcing around town, we developed ideas, conducting recipe tests, and recipe test revisions, had tastings with the bosses, and settled on a menu. The contractors moved out of the space, and we moved in...and then the contractors moved back in. But eventually, we took complete possession of the restaurant. We cleaned the construction out, and got our initial deliveries. We figured out our huge Mecnosud fork mixer, and made dough. We hired a staff and trained them, and eventually, we made pizza. And then all we did was make pizza.
We've been open for dinner for two weeks now, and, in the next few days, we'll start serving lunch seven days a week. We've had some crazy busy nights, and some slow weekday nights, too. We've received some amazing compliments, along with some much-appreciated criticism. It was a whirlwind, but it all came together, I'm happy to say: We're in business!
About the author: In addition to my posts here every two weeks or so, you can also follow my daily activity on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. And if any of you happen to be in or travelling to Nairobi, I hope you'll stop by and say hello!